Are you a horror movie fan? Maybe you prefer a good slasher flick from the 1980s, or perhaps you are more into gore and dream of squirming in your theater seat every Halloween watching the umpteenth version of Saw? Maybe you pine away for the good old days when being scared by Boris, or Bela, or Price was fun, not nauseating. Maybe you are just fed up with it, and dread every new — strike that — every remade horror release from Hollywood? Even if it is not a remake, odds are it will be the same old dreck dressed up with new victims.
So what is really wrong with today's horror movies? Have they traded in the carefully crafted hair-raising scares for easy gut-wrenching shocks? Has the Sargasso Sea of inept, Happy Meal-packaged DVD dreck finally sunk the horror craft? Whatever happened to using suggestion and suspense and atmosphere to tell a story anyway?
The League of Tana Tea Drinkers gather at the table for another round while they ponder this curious case of forgotten lore. Have one on us and join the conversation.
Horrors Not Dead opines today's horror movies are not yesterday's horror movies…
The problem with today's horror movies is they are not yesterday’s horror movies. I mean this not in a caliber comparison, rather strictly in temporal proximity. I think neither the horror community nor the fan community at large has had enough time to digest the current crop of horror output. I feel only time will separate the wheat from the chaff, that the current generation of horror acolytes have forgotten their now cherished classics were often not only ill received upon first introduction, but downright dismissed. The saying goes, "Time heals all wounds." I think as far as horror is concerned, time shows which wounds never heal.
Not nearly enough time has passed for this conversation to properly take place. Not nearly enough middle schoolers have sneaked into current R-rated films, had parents let them run wild in the sacred horror isles of a video store (rare oasis they be), or had older siblings pass them an illicit DVD of a film so reprehensible it shall surely burn itself upon their psyche for years to come.
The arena has changed and, frankly, I think the old guard hasn’t. For the purpose of full disclosure, let me state the following: I am fairly confident that I am the youngest of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers. Barely weeks into my 23rd year on this blue ball, I have grown up with a different set of films than the other LOTTD’ers. I wasn’t weaned on the likes of black and white, of De Palma and Wes Craven, of grindhouse or Italian shockers. I cut my teeth on Predator 2, on Alien 3. On Tremors and Army of Darkness, Lord of Illusions and Scream. I grew up thinking slashers were a punchline to be laughed at. I caught the tail end of the golden age (as far as I am now concerned) and was none the baby-faced wiser.
Did it change my appreciation of horror? You bet. Do I love The Thing as much as the next nut? You bet. Point is, I was rewinding VHS tapes of I Know What You Did Last Summer long before I had any idea who in the hell John Carpenter was. By the previous generation’s standards, today’s horror sucks. Hell, by my standards today’s horror sucks. However, let us not forget that a slumber party somewhere is full of bodies quivering with anticipation at the prospect of watching Hostel. Maybe they snuck the DVD out of their older brother’s collection; maybe their parents could care less what the kids add to the Netflix queue. Maybe they strolled into Best Buy and bought the flick without incident. Whatever the circumstances, I assure you that a new generation of horror fans are cowering in fear watching the likes of Hostel.
And I hate Hostel. I think it is a terrible film, a boil upon our smooth operating genre. This love fest is coming from someone whose site’s title, Horrors Not Dead, is a direct reference to Hostel purveyor Eli Roth’s thoughts on the Cabin Fever DVD commentary. But just because I think the thing is a dreadful exercise in shock with no awe, an affliction spreading through the new harvest of horror films, that does not unsoil the pants of an adolescent batch of horror fans in the making. They eat it up and I respect that. I was first in line to see Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage bounce around in a low cut top like some kind of rain dance to stave off a hook-wielding fisherman. I had poor taste once, too. So did you.
However, aside from the current cohort of horror fans loving the films we versed in the genre lambaste, I still stake the problem with today’s horror is that it is not yesterday’s horror. The space-time continuum does not yield for us. Horror films are being produced and released at an unprecedented pace. Even the most dedicated of fans, new or old, can’t keep up with the niche throughput. Factor in the excision of latitudinal and longitudinal borders thanks to the Internet, cheap international shipping rates, and region free DVD players, and, well, few can see everything.
The problem with today is its inability to simultaneously be yesterday. No one has discovered the real gems yet, the wounding 24 frames per second unhealed by time. Nothing is canonical, because nothing can be canonical in an industry of perpetual discovery. No one has time to pull back, take a breather and acknowledge just why the Spanish hit [REC] is a viral piece of cinema because they are too busy watching the trailer for the American remake re-titled Quarantine or reading about the proposed sequel. That isn’t a snide swipe at the current state of the industry, which anachronistically remakes and repackages before release even takes place. That is just the state of the game.
However, someone somewhere does need to pull back, needs to attempt to separate themselves from time and space, factor in all the variables and see what sinks and what rises. If that is my burden to bear as a modern horror blogger, so be it. No regrets on this end. I get to tell someone that Teeth is the millennium’s most unappreciated creature feature. That Altered is a thoroughly enjoyable twist on the alien abduction niche undeserving of its relegation to straight-to-DVD obscurity. That I may just be one of the few people blown away by The Last Horror Movie. That Black Water struck an indelible fear of crocodiles in me. That Storm Warning is a welcome relief in the overwrought Hillbillies-Rape-Locals brand of horror. That some studios still take risks on superficially silly material like killer plants and turn out horrifying product like 2008’s best horror film thus far, The Ruins. Or that [REC] will make grown men shit their pants.
I, not a film critic, just a film enthusiast, get to discover and share all those films with readers around the world. Every couple weeks I round up my own little big-screen-in-the-basement bound festival of titles chosen from blog of mouth. My friends, who couldn’t tell David Cronenberg from David Caruso, are routinely blown away by the new batch of horror out there. And when they aren’t, well, I just pop in The Thing and let ‘em discover how glorious old school horror is. Let’s not forget just how many horror films are released each and every month. I personally don’t see how anyone can cover them all with a blanket statement declaring, “The problem with today’s horror is…”
The only problem I find is there isn’t enough time in the day to discover what I’m missing out on.
Slasher Speak wonders where all the innocence has gone…
Modern horror movies have lost their innocence. Sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Gone are the days of wide-eyed awe at creatures that defied explanation and dazzled with their improbability, monsters that sprung forth from our internalized fears onto the screen. The modern horror film is less thematic and more about… well, everyday horror.
Trouble is that genre films today are more focused on the depiction of horror where horror films past concentrated on the personification of horror. Horror once spoke subtly, using allegory and metaphor and symbolism to convey the horror at its core. Horror spoke to you through the back door; it whispered in your ear. Headlines of the day were cloaked in comforting doses of filmmakers’ imagination — monsters and make-believe terrors. You escaped with horror to indirectly deal with broader societal issues that terrified or confused you – communism, war, racism, sexual liberation.
With its propensity for horror that’s ripped from the headlines, the genre now clobbers viewers over the head with the same reality they’re trying to escape. Home invasions, torture abroad, organ harvesters. There's little symbolism, little metaphor, little allegory. It’s all on full, graphic display, and there is no escape. Horror films today force us to confront visceral depictions of the stories we hear on the evening news. Our reality is met with reality masquerading as escapism on the screen. As a result, the horror movie experience is less cathartic, less therapeutic. It reinforces instead of relieves our fears. It's less roller coaster, more carousel.
Perhaps we’ve become too sophisticated for the simple cinematic metaphor, too jaded to buy into the personification of evil, too numb to bloodshed and violence. We know what evil is – we’re inundated with its images and effects 24/7 on streaming newscasts. There seems to be so little that shocks us that the boundaries in modern horror cinema have been stretched to their outer limits. And now that the concept of community is a fading aspect of our culture, there are few collective fears. Tapping into individual fears is a taller order for filmmakers, so they opt for depiction over personification.
Moviemakers cop out and recycle ideas instead of creating the next creature from a black lagoon or the next thing from another world. Studios opt for remakes that spit in the eyes of the source material and reimaginings that have less to do with actual imagination and more to do with wringing as many dollars from old ideas with as little effort or artistry as possible. The fun has been zapped from modern horror movies, and we’re often left to suffer through joyless celluloid creations that lack passion for the horror at their core – slick eye candy possessing all the substance of a vacuous blond sipping cosmos at a bar. There are exceptions, of course, but those are few and far between the dreck.
Even the horror movie experience itself has changed drastically. With the fading of community, the collective viewing experience of Saturday afternoon matinées is on the decline. People opt for the comfort and sanctuary of their own home theaters and the resulting experience is heavily dulled down. No longer is there that marvelous shared fear, tension, and anxiety of a hundred people all simultaneously tensing and cowering and jumping and screaming in a crowded movie theater. The enchantment of greasy popcorn and musty theater seats is quickly approaching antiquation as studios contemplate ways to make quicker, bigger bucks by releasing films simultaneously to multiplexes and home viewing markets. We’re developing cultural immunity to our once beloved horror movie experience.
Worse, we’ve created a generation numb to horror films. Their reactions alone – laughter, mockery, derision – bespeak the failure of the modern genre film. Imagination in our young has been replaced by the instantly gratifying images of interactive video games and other high-tech fare that spell it all out on high-definition monitors. There are no spooky walks through the woods, no backyard sleep-outs, no summer camp rites of passage to tantalize and tickle those dark spots in our subconscious. Folklore that once fueled imagination is on the decline, with yarns about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and the Bermuda Triangle reduced to tabloid fodder and ridicule from even the youngest of minds. Campfire tales and urban legends have been replaced by sensationalized newscasts. In our scientific world, everything has a rational explanation and there’s little room left for the possibility of things unknown to us. We’re arrogant in our knowledge as a society, and the simplicity of horror cinema has suffered. Sometimes ignorance is bliss – at least when it comes to our horror movies.
Theofantastique ponders on our current social and cultural context of postmodernity and the influence of commodification… oh my.
The problem with today’s horror movies is our current social and cultural context of postmodernity and the influence of commodification. No doubt, at this point, readers are scratching their heads and saying, “What?” Allow me to explain.
Horror is a complex genre involving multiple layers of interpretation, and as Stephen King has noted it “is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful.” One of the ways in which horror demonstrates its adaptability is that it provides a means of not only entertainment, but also an expression and means of grappling with some of our greatest fears as individuals and cultures. It should come as no surprise then that as individuals and cultures change, so do their fears, and these changes result in differing cinematic expressions of horror.
Earlier in the modern period horror helped express fears of the Other in its various manifestations that were symbolized in the monster. But with late modernity or postmodernity, a post-1960s phenomenon which is often tied cinematically to films like Psycho (1960), The Night of the Living Dead (1968), or The Exorcist (1973), there has been a shift from the monster as Other to an internalization process whereby the monster is us. The shift from the externalized monster as the locus of horror to an internalized terror is the result of social forces and perceptions that in turn colored interpretation of the self. Lianne McLarty discusses this in her chapter “‘Beyond the Veil of the Flesh’: Cronenberg and the Disembodiment of Horror” as part of The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 1996):
This ‘delegitimization’ of social institutions and the ‘instability’ of subjectivity finds expression in the ways in which these films depict both the monstrous threat and its consequences for protagonists. In contemporary (postmodern) horror, the threat is ‘not simply among us, but rather part of us, caused by us.’ Institutions (like the church and the military) that were once successful in containing the monster and restoring order are at best innefectual (there is often a lack of closure) and at worst responsible for the monstrous. Contemporary horror also tends to collapse the categories of normal and monstrous bodies; it is said to dispense with the binary opposition of us and them, and to resist the portrayal of the monster as a completely alien Other, characteristics of such 1950s films as The Thing (from Another World) (1951), Them! (1954), and The Blob (1958). This tendency to give the monster a familiar face (the monster is not simply among us, but possibly is us) is tied, in postmodern horror, to the focus on the body as site of the monstrous.
This shift from modern horror with the monster as external Other to the internal us with a related emphasis on the body has resulted in the continued tendency toward the production of slasher films beginning in the 1970s and gaining steam in the 1980s and beyond. A further development of this may be found in more recent films where the monster is not the lone psychological deviant such as Michael Myers of Halloween, but a group dynamic (in terms of the perpetrators) of psychological deviance as in Saw (if not in the original at least in the sequels), and Hostel, where the body most strongly becomes the site of the monstrous through graphic depictions of torture and mutilation.
I am not a prude when it comes to violence in film, but I do have my preferences in expressions of horror, no doubt due to the influences of my social environment as I was growing up. I first encountered horror in the late 1960s and early 1970s through horror’s twins in science fiction and fantasy films that depicted the monstrous Other as alien invader, the result of science gone awry, or prehistoric beast meets modern society. Later I encountered the classic Universal and Hammer horror films which again depicted the monster externally, and it was only in my later teens that I engaged postmodern horror with its emphasis on psychological deviance, the internalization of horror, and bodily mutilation as the primary expression of the horrific.
In essence I suppose I was inculturated in a particular expression of horror, the early modern expression with the externalized monster, and as a result I have always found this expression of horror more frightening, indeed, more appealing. I think I might also find the complete internalization of horror within myself extremely distasteful. I recognize that human beings are indeed a curious mix of greatness and tragedy, but for me, postmodern horror’s revelry in human evil and bodily mutilation presents an overly dark and nihilistic expression of human nature and horror that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Related to these social and cultural considerations that result in a struggling horror market is its connection to commodification. Horror films are commodities designed to provide the highest return on investment possible, at least in those films produced by Hollywood and mainstream studios, and the emphasis on horror as commodity often leaves creativity and good storytelling by the wayside. In my view, some of the best contemporary horror comes from independent filmmakers and from the international market, with directors from Asia and Mexico, not the United States. In regards to independent filmmakers, the priority is given to good stories and frights, and while international horror is just as connected to commodification as the American horror market, somehow they have manged to provide a fresh infusion of creativity and conceptualization into the American horror market.
I recognize that my preferences for horror cause me to lean largely toward the Gothic, although my preferences for an early modern form of horror certainly go beyond this specific expression of horror. I am not alone in such preferences, and in sharing the reasons why these are indeed horror preferences, as evidenced by others such as Bruce Lanier Wright in his book Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies (Taylor Publishing Company, 1995), have expressed similar preferences in contrast with contemporary postmodern horror:
..I believe that ideas have consequences, and I do worry about the idea embodied both in gore-porn and a good many modern ‘horror’ films. The underlying theme of Grand Guignol entertainment can be stated quite simply: You and I are pieces of meat, and all our interactions – anything we do to or for one another – are merely the random collisions of pieces of meat, without meaning or significance. This is a legitimate artistic position, and one developed with some brilliance by George Romero and others. It’s also a tremendously popular idea in mass media. The handful of individuals how decide what appears on television and in our theaters, not being particularly altruistic by nature, must believe it’s what you want to see.
The Gothic position, by contrast, is that good and evil do exist, and that men’s actions carry a moral weight; that our choices count. And if our actions have some sort of importance, maybe we do, too. Maybe we’re more than just the some of our desires and hatreds.
This post will likely be a little more “heady” than many of my fellow LOTT D unity post bloggers, but I think there’s something worth thinking about here. If horror is indeed an adaptable and useful genre we might be thinking about not only why it entertains, but also why it changes in its expression, and what the internalized “monsterous us” of contemporary, postmodern, nihilistic horror says about us as individuals and as a culture.
End of Part One. Intermission time! "Let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the lobby, to get ourselves a snack!"
LOTT D members contributing to this article: